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Quantum predictions: technologies represent the holy grail of today’s industry. So, is the new Industry 4.0 helping create smarter, leaner and more efficient alternative energy solutions?

Matthew Pech, Finance and Control of AW-Energy Oy, explains how technological improvements are making ocean energy solutions more attractive for commercialisation.

Pech believes that for ocean energy solutions to succeed, R&D projects need to identify ways to reduce the cost of electricity, and to find a suitable protection mechanism for wave energy devices to survive varying weather patterns and the corrosive marine environment.

With 2% of the world’s 800 000 kilometre (km) of coastline exceeding a wave power density of 30 kilowatt per meter (kW/m), IRENA estimates the global technical potential is about 500 gigawatt electrical energy (GWe ) based on a conversion efficiency of 40%. Large wave energy resources can be found across the globe.

Pech says the attractiveness of a particular site depends on factors such as the wave height and direction saying it is also restricted by whether the site is in a protected area or near shipping routes. He suggests that a practical solution is to use other marine projects (eg. wind farms) to accelerate industry development and is quick to highlight that in the case of a wind-wave project, this may help to compensate for wind variability, which is considerably higher than in the case of the waves, and more difficult to predict. Most studies investigate these issues only on a theoretical level.

And presently there doesn’t seem to be much crossover and engagement between the wind sector and wave energy businesses – as Pech says: “welcome to my déjà vu” in which he explains that just five years ago if representatives of oil companies and wind farm developers sat around a table, each would refrain from speaking to oneanother. “Now look at how those siloed ambitions between industry sectors have been broken down and in a very short time!”

At the same time, the wave regimes vary substantially across the different regions, resulting in a wide variety of technologies. Pech suggests there is a lack of industrial cohesion and limited supply chains for the variety of components required. For both planning and technology development purposes, synergies with other offshore industries would be advantageous to the wave energy industry. Similarly, there are opportunities to create more dedicated infrastructures – including ports and transmission grids – to support the installation and operation and maintenance of wave energy converters.

Development and synergies will bring wave energy LCOE down

Today, more than 100 pilot and demonstration ocean energy projects exist throughout the world, but only a handful of technologies are close to commercialisation, including WaveRoller®. The next step on the road to commercialisation is the demonstration of wave energy farms in the range of 10 megawatts (MW).

The estimates for levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of wave energy technologies in 10 MW demonstration projects has historically been suggested to be in the range of EUR 330-630 per megawatt-hour (/ MWh). But Pech says there is considerable scope for achieving much better economies of scale and learning, with the projected LCOE for wave energy in 2030 estimated by IRENA to be a lot lower with some suggesting between EUR 113-226/MWh if deployment levels of more than 2 gigawatt (GW) are achieved. Pech believes that their own WaveRoller® will achieve an even lower LCOE. “While $Trillions have been spent to develop today’s oil and gas industry, and $billions pooled to support the development of solar and wind power, that are now leveraging the oil and gas industry to decrease costs, only a fraction of this industry investment has been spent on ocean and wave energy.” Pech adds that the wave energy sector is already starting to see results, such as the first-of-a-kind commercialization of wave energy off the coast of Peniche in Portugal, and at a scale where the team can see they are able to compete in certain markets.

Considerable research is going into improvements of the power systems, which account for 22% of project life costs. In particular, efficiency improvements in turbines (currently 50-60% efficient) and hydraulic systems to dampen the variability, are being explored. Furthermore, synergies with other offshore industries such as oil, gas and wind, are being pursued to reduce the costs of installation, operation and maintenance, and mooring (accounting for 41% of project life costs). Costs are expected to fall by a net amount of approximately 70% by 2030 due to economies of scale in the sector.

The next generation is around the corner

Pech says that with the wave energy industry planning to make the move from full-scale testing of individual technologies, the next generation of wave energy devices are expected to go further.

Technology developments are disrupting the traditional R&D model and going beyond traditional parameters discovering improved cost reductions. A number of new developments include the use of materials to reduce the wave device’s weight and biofouling effects on the marine environment; generators to increase efficiency and performance; new mooring systems for floating devices adapted to the wave energy needs from the oil and gas industry for increased safety and better interaction with the converter; underwater power connectors that allow easy underwater operability and quick, easy and low cost maintenance interventions; new optimisation, operation, and control systems, including assessments of hydrodynamic interaction, and electrical connection issues (including grid and distribution codes); and increasing collaboration with the offshore wind industry to reduce the cost of common offshore grid infrastructures.

Furthermore, new concepts of multiplatform or hybrid devices, where wave energy technologies would be integrated or share the same infrastructure as other marine users, are being investigated. Some of those synergies can increase the energy yield per unit of marine area, sharing a common grid infrastructure, sharing specialised marine equipment, lower O&M cost, sharing foundation systems, reducing the capital costs, and some environmental benefits as the impact of a combined emplacement will be smaller than that with different locations.

Pech puts forward the suggestion that countries such as Australia, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, and the USA are breaking into what was predominantly a European stronghold on technology competition. Consequently, not only has there been a promotion of various technologies, but also initiation of research and development programmes.

Wave energy is not a competitor, but a partner

He indicates that wave energy technologies will require supply chains similar to oil and gas, and offshore wind. The involvement of large and multi-disciplinary industries can be expected to promote synergies, which will generate economies of scale and cost reductions. Fortunately, utilities, large engineering firms and heavy industries, such as traditional shipbuilding, are now beginning to show interest in this emerging sector. This is creating the conditions necessary to install wave energy farms and continue to reduce costs. He points out that the road to commercialization will be much faster with wave than has been with wind and solar, as wave energy is directly benefiting from the leanings gained from the pioneering work of the early day wind and solar energy engineers. Using these learning, wave energy can leapfrog to gain market share in a fraction of the time.

Pech further emphasizes that wave energy should not be considered a competing industry with other renewables but an indispensable and necessary addition to the renewable energy mix. Wave energy brings with it the base-load like characteristics that are required in order to deploy renewable energies globally, at scale. Pech would hope to see more developers looking into developing wave energy projects to complement and backup their solar and wind energy offerings.

What’s next? For Pech it’s clear. Through collaboration companies can foster success. The renewable industry’s approach going forward must continue to promote partnerships and engagement between scientists and policymakers, universities and businesses, established global players and SMEs, and between people with great mindsets with robust pooling of ideas and money to invest. He strongly believes the routes to commercialisation may be faster than first thought!